Saturday, 28 January 2012

Undergraduate Philosophy Students: Choosing Philosophy

I thought it might be fun to do a short series of posts on undergraduate philosophy majors. Today, we’ll talk about why students generally pick up a philosophy concentration. My next post will discuss the evolution of the common undergraduate philosophy major. There might be a third post about common career paths for the recent philosophy B.A. [Only if I can make it clever enough. Right now the idea of discussing career paths seems much too dull].

Undergraduates become philosophy majors for a very different set of reasons than graduate students. I was an English major myself, so I know from experience that English majors generally become English majors because they either (1) love literature or (2) want to become a secondary school English teacher (sometimes both (1) and (2), but sometimes not). And English majors can really do just about anything office-y in the workforce (“Wait, you were an English major, so you can write and speak well—plus you can recite “The Lord’s Prayer” in Old English from heart? You’re hired!” [This was basically how I got my first job]).

But back to philosophers. Philosophy is one of those trickier subjects in the Humanities that, on the surface, doesn’t seem to qualify someone for a particular type of job (and students and parents of students are mostly concerned, in the U.S., at least, with pursuing a degree in higher education in order to get a better job). What, then, draws undergraduates to study philosophy?

One of my favorite groups of philosophers to work with is undergraduate philosophy majors—particularly incoming freshpersons (first-year students). No matter what class (as in, year of student, not socio-economic class), I always try to sneak in questions about why each student came to philosophy. Given this data, I’ve come up with four of the major reasons why undergraduate students decide to study philosophy:

1.  I just love it.

There are a few—a very few, I might add—something like 2% of all incoming students and 10% of all current students (who change concentrations) who come to philosophy because they just love it. I’ve had students who discovered philosophy through a high school class or from an influential sibling or just a simple, intro-level philosophy course somewhere. This type of student doesn’t really care initially about what they can actually do with a philosophy degree, they just can’t imagine studying anything else. Sometimes, usually because of parental pressure, they pick up a second concentration in something practical, but the true lovers of philosophy aren’t happy unless they are studying philosophy all the time.

2. I really liked Professor X’s Philosophy of [Something-Academically-“Sexy”] class.

Some new philosophy majors are wooed in by a particular professor or “sexy” philosophy class (Philosophy of Art or Love or Media, for example). Let’s face it: Some philosophy professors are really, really great at teaching philosophy in an incredibly interesting way (and some are as dull as dirt). These sorts of professors tend to attract a small following of undergrads who try to get away with taking all of this professor’s classes, but don’t really adore philosophy-for-philosophy’s-sake in the way that our first student does. This second student might also be wooed in by a really interesting philosophy class, but may not understand exactly what philosophy is all about [but who does?!]. This kind of student makes up about 10% of the population of philosophy majors.

3. I hear that philosophy students do well on the GRE/LSAT/MCAT/GMAT.

Our largest recruitment pool comes from this type of student, surprisingly (around 60%), and it is completely true that philosophers tend to do very well on such tests. There are some nifty charts here (link), that show how philosophers score on various tests compared to students in other fields. For those of you who are rather confused about the charts or don’t want to take the time to study them, I’ve simplified the charts here (click to enlarge):

Exhibit A: How philosophers do overall on standardized tests.

Exhibit B: How philosophers do on the Verbal/Writing portions of the GRE.

Exhibit C: How philosophers do on the Quantitative (Math) portion of the GRE.

And finally, the fourth type of philosophy student.

4. I don’t have any other options.

Okay, so philosophy is one of those subjects that has a difficult time recruiting students initially (unless they are student (3) who comes in with a purpose). We tend to attract students to the major after they take a course in philosophy and either (a) fall in love with it, (b) are wooed in by a class or professor, or (c) have no other options.

Philosophy often ends up as the most accepting liberal arts major because it’s really hard for some philosophers to turn away a hard case when this student might become a better thinker/reasoner, even if they aren’t very astute or motivated initially [philosophers tend to be divided here; one side takes the view that we should keep philosophy programs small and full of bright students, and one side think that we should accept all of the strays and hope to build them up as great thinkers].

So for all of you parents out there who just discovered that your offspring became a philosopher, there is hope. Perhaps a philosophy program will take your wandering, indecisive child and make them into a thoughtful, reasonable person. Perhaps your student will do really well on the LSAT and look forward to a great career in law. Perhaps your student has chosen the path of wisdom and doesn’t really know where this path leads, but they can’t imagine studying anything else. Whatever the case, you should be proud of your young philosopher.

And some fun. A comic that is being passed around by my philosopher friends (click to enlarge):

~The Philosiologist

You can follow me on twitter (@Philosiologist), friend me on facebook (Philosiologist Qed), or add me to your circle on Google+ (Philosiologist Qed). You can also send me an email, if you would like (left sidebar).

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Childhood Tales from Philosophers

I don’t know about the rest of you non-philosophers, but I am intrigued by the tales I hear from some philosophers (and their family members) about how weird they were as children.

[Note: I’m going to preface the rest of this entry by saying that I have years of professional experience working with children in the eight-to-sixteen-years-old range, and none of the children I interacted with had exactly these sorts of dramatic philosopher-reactions to situations (though there were lots of “whys,” but most children go through a “why” phase)].

So today I thought it would be fun to share a few childhood stories that I’ve heard from my philosopher about his childhood, and then encourage you to either ask your philosopher about her/his childhood and/or share your own in the comments.

Story 1: Newton’s Third Law of Motion Must be Incorrect

My philosopher was in the fifth grade (around eleven-years-old) when his class was learning about Newton’s laws of motion. When they reached the third law (“for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”), my philosopher knew that this law was completely wrong. He envisioned a situation in which a bar attached to a machine could be moving toward another object (say, a very large boulder). At the point of impact, this bar would be stopped by the machine such that the bar did not at all bounce off the boulder, in the way that this law of motion required the bar to.

My philosopher debated about this with his teacher for several weeks in class—refusing to give in until the teacher videotaped a situation where the philosopher pushed another student. She showed him how he bounced back slightly, even though he was the one exerting the force. Despite the video evidence, my philosopher spent more time trying to explain why the so-called “evidence” proved nothing since it didn’t really challenge the thought experiment as such.

This teacher was so angry at him by the end that she made him write a long report about Newton, and then made him read it aloud to the class (a sort of punishment for being annoying).

Could you guess that this philosopher became an analytic philosopher? [The crazy, impossible thought experiment gives it away].

Story 2: Free-Will, God’s Knowledge, and Impossibilities

When my philosopher was around seven-years-old when he began to be bothered by questions of free will. He can remember sitting around for hours, trying to reason through ideas like:

Let’s say I move my hand. Does God know that I was going to move my hand? Did he know that I knew that he knew that I was going to move my hand? When does the circle of this knowing end?

My parents say that I should love God more than them. How can I measure how much I love my parents, in order to love God even more? And how can I love God when I’ve never met him? I do know that I love my parents, but I see them every day and they do all sorts of nice things for me (like give me presents and make me lunch).

So, now that you’ve started thinking about philosopher-children, do you see any of your current children on their way to becoming philosophers? I certainly hope so; the world needs more philosophers.

~The Philosiologist

You can follow me on twitter (@Philosiologist), friend me on facebook (Philosiologist Qed), or add me to your Google+ circle (Philosiologist Qed). You can also send me an email (left sidebar). Forgive me for the shorter entry today, as I am off to paint J.S. Mill's portrait on a living room pillow and tend to my zucchini seedlings.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Habitualness: One Philosopher-Quirk of Many

So I’ve been away for a while. I have lots of excuses, but the one that most of you will be able to relate to rhymes with shmrad shmool shmapplications.

[Semi-related side-note: I don’t know how you students in M.A. programs ever get any applications out to Ph.D. programs. Seriously, I had no life for six months (though I do work at a full-time job, at which we had a particularly busy semester, which didn’t help). I can’t imagine how you can write final papers for your grad classes in addition to preparing a writing sample, studying for GRE exams, and putting together all of the various statements of purpose/intent, etc. in time].

Now that I’m not perpetually stressed and sleep-deprived, with GRE words and Petrarchian sonnets dancing around in my head [like sugar plums in the “Night Before Christmas” poem, just in a creepier way] all the time, it’s time to write again. Off we go!

My philosopher often describes being a philosopher to non-philosopher this way: lots of time spent alone, studying projects that no one outside of one’s area is interested in. It makes them weird.

The “cute,” weird habits that philosophers develop early in their careers will only get worse as they get older. Part of learning to understand and/or live with a philosopher is learning how to live with some of these quirks and accept them as part of the philosopher-package, without letting them get in the way of your happiness, too.

I thought it would be fun to talk about one of the more apparent quirks, and then I’ll give some (hopefully) helpful suggestions about how to deal with it.


Philosophers are so habitual.

I know several Continental philosophers who will protest here that I am being unfair to them, as Continental philosophy has an air of unpredictability about it, but let me respond that I know many Continental and many Analytic philosophers, and every single one of them is habitual to an extreme. Here’s a way to test and see how habitual your philosopher is: move, hide, or disrupt something that they use/eat/do every day and see how they respond. [This can turn into a really fun game, but you didn’t hear this from me].

I had the opportunity once to view the results of a rearrangement of furniture in my philosopher’s department main office. Every professor or grad who entered the office acted shocked at the change, but here are my favorite reactions: (1) walking in, seeing the change, and freezing in the middle of the room with a look of fear on their faces; (2) looking around confusedly and not being able to form simple sentences because they were too distracted; (3) complaining about the change initially, then coming in a few days later and deciding that they liked it after all (most philosophers had this reaction).

Habitual people have a hard time when familiar things change [“Duh Katie”]. Philosophers are super-habitual. How can you lessen the blow? [Note: Some of you philosopher will think that this is patronizing in tone, but I can reassure you that it is an attempt at sympathy not patronization].

1. Prepare your philosopher
Explain that you will be making changes a few days before you actually do make them. They will grumble less if they know that something is coming.

2. Prepare Counter-Points
Have gentle responses ready when they do grumble about a change (“Yes, it is different, but you can see that it does give us more light in here, which we needed”). Philosophers are pretty rational people. They will consider your counter-points to their grumbles, as this is how they understand things in philosophy-world (philosophy-world is all about points and counter-points). Besides, it’s really fun to play at their game sometimes.

3. Sympathize
Let them know that you understand that they don’t like something. They will grumble less if they see you as an understanding person.

Just as philosophers develop habits which make it difficult for them to handle change, they can also develop habits to deal with change. Example: In our case, I always try to warn my philosopher ahead of time when something is going to change. If he can be ready for it, he will not grumble when the time comes, and he might even have responses ready for philosophers around him who do grumble about the same change. [Note: “Grumble” might not be the correct word here, as my philosopher doesn’t actually grumble. Perhaps “protest” or “panic” would be better].

Remember: habitualness is a defense for understanding and dealing with the outside world. Be patient with your philosopher and help her/him out a little with all of the unpredictableness outside of their little projects in philosophy-world. Realize that when they do protest to change, it is often because something is different rather than because they don’t like something.

~The Philosiologist

You can follow me on twitter (@Philosiologist), friend me on facebook (Philosiologist Qed), or add me to a circle on Google+ (Philosiologist Qed). You can also send me an email if you would like to (left sidebar). Thanks to all of you for your concern when I don’t post regularly. Perhaps I’ll even answer your